How do gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) nurses handle the issue of their sexuality in the nursing workplace? Are they “out” at work? Do they encounter discrimination from patients and co-workers, and if so, how do they deal with it? Is their sexuality an asset, a liability or a non-issue when it comes to being a nurse?

As a gay man who is also a nurse, I am very interested in exploring these issues. I recently spent some time searching Internet nursing forums and came across a very enlightening thread. I’d like to share some of the posts with you.

The discussion began with a gay nurse asking other gay nurses for advice on how they deal with questions from patients about their home life, such as “Are you married?” The conversation quickly turned to more general comments on the broader issues of acceptance of gays in the workplace and being “out” versus “in the closet” at work.

From a nursing assistant and Army medic: “There is NOTHING wrong with keeping your personal life (whatever that may be) COMPLETELY apart from your work life. That’s what professionals do.”

A nurse in Texas responds: “That’s not the real world, professional or not. Keeping my personal life completely apart from my work life is what I attempted to do many times over, but. . .it only leads to more questions, more probing and just as much if not more gossip and stories about you. Not that gossip in the workplace should rule how you react to it, but in my experience it just ends up making things worse when you act vague and mysterious about your personal life.

“For me, it has always been a struggle between [how to deal with] the ‘if you’re gay I don’t want to know about it’ straight co-workers and the ‘inquiring minds want to know’ types,” the post continues. “For the latter types, fine. Here’s my oh-so-interesting gay life. Pretty ordinary and not much different from yours. For the former types, I’ve always found it interesting that the same nurses who fall into the ‘keep your private life to yourself’ category tend to be the same ones who constantly talk about their [spouses] and children at the nurses’ station all day.

“Can all of you [nurses] out there who insist that your private lives are completely separate from your professional lives honestly say that you never make any mention of a spouse or love interest to your co-workers, whether voluntarily or [in response to] questions from your peers? [Or that you] only discuss professional work-related issues with them?”

Another poster argues, “When I am at work, I am a nurse. I leave my personal life where it belongs— at home, not work! I would never engage in discussions about my personal life at work, because I am there solely to ensure that my patients receive the best quality care.”

A critical care nurse in Texas comments at some length: “I disagree that you can work in such close environs and not share some personal information with your co-workers. Establishing professional relationships requires some personal disclosure. [People] don’t live in compartments— professional here, personal there. If you withhold all [information about] personal relationships, you will have a problem with being considered aloof or cold—and that would affect your professional relationships.

“It has been my experience that most nurses’ stations are literal Peyton Places of personal information. I couldn’t see how you could hide who you are for long. The effort to do so would seem to me to just cause too much dang stress—. “Will some people be comfortable with [your sexuality] and others uncomfortable? Of course. You have to read each individual and [then decide to give or not give] details of your life based on [how accepting you think that person would be]. That’s not the same as saying that you should remain ‘in the closet’ to co-workers who would have a problem [with your being gay], but you can certainly de-emphasize your conversation [about that aspect of your life when you’re working with them]. The bottom line is: as co-workers we have to work together, which means some give and take on lots of issues, including this one.

“I would think that [in this day and age] most of your co-workers would have come to terms with this issue anyway. It is my experience that there is either a higher percentage of gays in nursing [than in other professions] or at the least, a higher percentage of gay nurses who are willing to be ‘out’ about it. As such, most of your co-workers should have had ample opportunity to ‘get [used to] it.’

“As far as patients go, your relationship with them is far more temporary. I would think it would be, if not appropriate, then certainly more convenient to not bring it up and only disclose that information rarely, [especially if you are working with older patients]. The older generation is much more fixed in their [biases and stereotypes], and a few days’ exposure to a challenge of those stereotypes is not going to change them, [especially if] they are sick enough to be in the hospital or a family member who is stressed over their loved one being in the hospital.”

What an interesting and revealing conversation! These posts shed light on some important issues that are all too often overlooked in discussions about the need for more diversity in the nursing workforce. Above all, they show that while GLBT nurses face many of the same biases and barriers to acceptance as racial and ethnic minority nurses, we must also deal with a whole set of other challenges that are uniquely our own.

To Thine Own Self Be True

As a gay RN who is now in his 40s, I have seen the incidence of homophobia in the workplace decline quite a bit in recent years. Of course, that’s partly because I moved from Georgia to more liberal California to escape some of that. But all in all, it’s a more accepting workplace.

Like other groups who are perceived as “different” by the majority population, GLBT people have had a tough time as a minority in society. I remember when I was in my 20s and saw my first gay bashing. Then, when [21-year-old gay college student] Matthew Shepard was beaten to death [in Wyoming in 1998], it put homophobia in the national spotlight.

Since then, many states and organizations have taken action to protect GLBT people from various kinds of discrimination, including employment discrimination. While it’s still legal in 26 states to fire someone because of his or her sexuality, another 25 states have laws on the books protecting homosexuals from workplace discrimination. Some of the gay participants in the abovementioned Internet nursing forum say they rely on their hospital’s code of ethics to protect them from harassment in the workplace.

As for myself, I’m out at work. I have a partner of six years and I find (some) men attractive. That’s who I am. I have a sexuality and while it’s not really part of my work life, I am not going to hide it in fear. It is just as beautiful and worthy of respect as any other part of me or anyone else. We owe it to the next generation to leave this world in better shape than we found it. I do that, in part, by fighting homophobia and promoting tolerance. I perform my nursing care in a nonjudgmental fashion and I don’t expect to be judged if my sexuality is revealed in casual conversation.

Nursing is, by its nature, a very personal profession. We perform embarrassing and sometimes painful procedures on people, and so our patients sometimes want to know a little bit about us. Accepting who I am allows me to better accept other human beings for who they are. Some people are in a mindset that requires some personal growth before they can be accepting of gays— or blacks, or Indians or any other minority. It’s not for me to shelter them from my sexuality and stunt their growth nor to judge them. I owe it to the world to be a good person and a worthy nurse who, among many other things, is an unashamed homosexual. I don’t accept intolerance and I point it out when I see it.

Based on those Internet forum posts, it would appear that the main concerns on the minds of today’s GLBT nurses are about disclosure— whether to hide or downplay their sexuality at work or to stand up for their right to be accepted as who they are. That this is still an issue clearly shows how laws against equality for gay people—such as the recent Proposition 8 in California, which took away same-sex couples’ right to marry—can be passed in this modern age. If gays are afraid to stand up and be counted in the workplace, then people who are on the fence regarding GLBT rights will never know who we are and what great people we are. They will never know what positive role models we are as nurses and as minorities fighting for acceptance in society. And most importantly, they will never know about the unique qualities, knowledge and insights we bring to the nursing profession and to patient care.

We bring compassion and a special advocacy for the underdog. We have known discrimination and the fear that comes from being different. GLBT nurses turn this into an ability to strive harder to meet the needs of minority patients and the underserved. We know what it’s like to have to work twice as hard as other people to reach the same goals. We cherish the things it takes us more effort to achieve, such as marriage, children and equal rights under the law. We respect people for who they are as individuals, regardless of skin color, gender, age or affliction. That’s what GLBT nurses bring to the nursing workplace. Now it’s time for us to step up and be recognized for those contributions. I urge all GLBT nurses to bring one more very important thing to the work we do: the willingness to stand up and be proud of who we are.

Spencer Miller, RN

Spencer Miller, RN, is an emergency room nurse who has worked at various hospitals in Florida, Georgia, and California as a traveler. He currently lives in Sunnyvale, California.

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